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Garage Days Revisited

Curtain falls on Signature Theatre’s ‘black box.’

What the audience saw at Signature Theatre: award-winning performances that established the company as one of the D.C. area’s most innovative and challenging producers for the stage.

What the audience didn’t see at Signature Theatre: sewage backing up to the point where it would seep into costumes backstage, actors trying to remember their lines with the sounds of hydraulic wrenches echoing in a nearby alley, and weeks of headache inducing decision-making on how to stage a production in a space capped by girders that were 11 feet, 9 inches off the ground.

“You think about all the great things we got to do and create in that space. It really is kind of amazing,” said Eric Schaeffer, artistic director, of his “black box” theatre located on 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive — an industrial space nicknamed The Garage.

Next month, Signature moves into its plush new home on 2800 South Stafford Street in Shirlington, above a first-floor county library and adjacent to a 750-car parking garage. It will be surrounded by foot traffic and restaurants instead of barren stretches of road and auto repair shops. It will have nearly 150 more seats in its main theatre (The Max), as well as a second “black box” theatre (The Ark) for experimental works, dramas and cabarets. The seating capacity will cure one of the primary ills for Signature, which had shows sell out frequently and customers hesitant to seek out available tickets because they assumed the shows were already booked.

Clearly, this is the next evolution for the 17-year-old theater company, both technologically and commercially. But while Signature Theatre packs up its gear for next month’s opening of “Into the Woods,” the question remains: Can the magic it had in its previous home travel with it?

“Right now it’s pretty spectacularly clean, like a model house. I don’t feel like the Theatre’s personality is imprinted on it — that will take time. I just hope we never lose that scrappy feel that the Theatre’s always had,” said Donna Migliaccio, former managing director for Signature and one of its most veteran actors.

“When you’re in a very elegant, brand new space, you don’t have to struggle anymore. People aren’t going to cut you any slack because you’re working out of a dump.”

THE DUMP came to be Signature’s home after three years of producing shows at Gunston’s Theatre II. “We outgrew Gunston. The audience was growing, but we had nowhere to put them,” said Schaeffer.

On his drive to work at WETA every morning, Schaeffer would spy a dilapidated garage on South Four Mile Run Drive and wondered if it would work as a theater. He and a friend, Richard Gommersall, walked through the site, and Schaeffer was diagnosed by his friend as loony for even considering it for Signature. But Gommersall, an architect, worked out a design that showed its potential. “I loved the industrial, raw space. And it was an open space with no pillars,” said Schaeffer. “We had six months to raise $300,000 to totally renovate the space. And we did that, and we’ve been there for 13 years.”

Migliaccio, now a consultant for the theater, recalled the broken-out skylights, muck-covered floors and frequent visitors — rodent and otherwise. “We’d have the odd wino who’d walk up and ask, ‘What’s this building?’ And you didn’t want to be disrespectful to a possible neighbor,” she said.

The theater space itself presented a myriad of challenges; most prominently, the metal girders that hung above the stage which limited the kind of elaborate sets needed for some shows; productions of “My Fair Lady and “Cabaret” would incorporate them into the environment. “There were days you could work with the girders, and other days when you wanted to take a hacksaw and cut them all in half. But we couldn’t do that, or else the building would have fallen down,” said Schaeffer.

The new facility has a higher ceiling, and a more functional one: at the old theater, there were no circuits in the ceiling, so a lighting hang that would have lasted one day took three or four.

THE ACTORS were challenged by the space as well. “The audience always had a great time. For the actors, it was more difficult. When we had a production like ‘Follies,’ that was 35 people, and it was tough to jam into the rehearsal spaces,” said Harry A. Winter, an actor for Signature for the last two years.

Schaeffer said actors had to adapt to cramped quarters backstage and a small performance space onstage — a mere eight rows away from the audience.

“The space was kind of misleading and people thought they didn’t have to project as much. So they [dialed] it back. You’re still on the stage – they’re only eight rows away,” he said.

Like the actors, the productions were tailed to the space. “One of the great things about the staging is that it begs that you strip whatever show you’re doing down to the bare essentials. If it’s a story worth listening to, they want to hear it,” said Winter.

The stories Signature has told in its old theater have resulted in 50 Helen Hayes Awards since 1992 and the 2002 Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award, given in New York to the company that exhibits an “artistic vision and commitment to the support and development of musical theatre artists."

Rather than the productions themselves — 47 overall, with 563 weeks of production — Migliaccio believes the old theater space affected the expectations of those who attended them. “I think people were just so stunned that we could create something so beautiful in a space like that. Maybe their expectations were lowered…I don’t know,” she said. “We could have made that magic happen almost anywhere, but the thing is that when you’re in a little chicken salad place like that and you create filet mignon, it’s pretty spectacular.”

AS THE CURTAIN falls on the “black box” on South Four Mile Run Drive, Schaeffer and Co. will produce a “Last Garage Hurrah” from Dec. 13-16 at the Garage. Special cabaret performances by Eleasha Gamble, Will Gartshore, Donna Migliaccio, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Stephen Gregory Smith, and Harry A. Winter will bring to life some of Signature’s greatest musical triumphs of the last 13 years. A limited number of tickets are available for a benefit performance on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 9 p.m. that will feature special guests and a post-show champagne reception. Visit www.signature-theater.org for information and for tickets for all upcoming shows.

The first show at the new theater space in Shirlington is Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” directed by Schaeffer and opening Jan. 12, 2007.

As Signature enters the next chapter of its storybook existence, Winter’s first words as the show’s narrator seemingly couldn’t be more appropriate:

“Once upon a time…”